TAMPA — Ram Jakhotia remembers when Tampa felt even farther from India than the 9,000 miles that separate them.
The 76-year-old native of the state of Rajasthan arrived in Tampa in 1981 to find an Indian community that consisted of just a few dozen families. With no Hindu temple, families took turns hosting services at their homes in what they referred to as “temple groups” — bring your own blankets and bedsheets to kneel on.
“We felt very isolated and very alone,” Jakhotia recalls. “That makes what is about to occur here even more amazing.”
Tampa will host one of the biggest events on the social and entertainment calendar of India from April 24 through 26, the 15th annual International Indian Film Academy Weekend & Awards.
One reason Tampa landed the event — beating out big cities worldwide to land the first U.S. show — is the growth of that once tiny community during the past three decades. The local Indian population now is estimated at 35,000.
By comparison, the so-called Bollywood Oscars is expected to draw some 30,000 visitors for three days of celebration honoring India’s film industry and culture and culminating in a glitzy awards ceremony at Raymond James Stadium.
With more than 800 million viewers in 108 countries around the globe, it is among the world’s most-watched annual events and is expected to add almost $30 million to the local economy.
Paresh Patel said he hopes Tampa uses the occasion to celebrate its Indian community, too — and those in the community who helped land this economic windfall through decades of work.
“This event is a celebration of the 1 percent,” said Patel, chairman of Tampa’s Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting that these awards are really a party for India’s wealthy. “But it is what has been accomplished locally that opened this opportunity up.”
Population alone doesn’t explain how Tampa landed the Bollywood Oscars. Cities in California, Illinois and New Jersey have many more people born in India — some in the six figures.
“So what it means is that we have a pool of talent in our Indian community that is as good as or better than any in the world, and we are the most persistent in the entire United States,” said Pawan Rattan, a Tampa doctor who helped found this city’s first Hindu temple and the chamber of commerce.
Credit goes to a number of factors.
Tampa has hosted large-scale events in recent years. It had elected officials committed to bringing it here. It has the type of weather tourists crave.
But Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Kiran Patel, the Tampa philanthropist of Indian heritage who served as liaison in the discussions, said a deciding factor was the local Indian community.
“They are ingrained in everything we do,” Buckhorn said.
“We are very unique in that as a community we are very cohesive compared to many other places I have been,” Kiran Patel said. “That was one of the traits we possess that impressed them.”
Working as a group has been a hallmark of Tampa’s Indian community from the start. It hasn’t been easy, though, setting aside differences that in other parts of the world would have driven them apart.
India has 28 states and seven union territories, each with their own version of the nation’s customs. For instance, different regions practice the nation’s primary religion of Hinduism in different ways — prayers, services and, in some cases, languages.
Because India was once part of the British empire, its people were spread throughout Africa, South America and the Caribbean. They bring their own customs to the Indian diaspora.
Indian immigrants began arriving in the Tampa Bay area in the 1970s. They came to the United States for economic opportunity and to Tampa for the familiar warm climate.
Families from different areas of India and the world and even from different castes — the social division based on wealth, rank or occupation — chose to congregate here.
In India they were different, but not in Tampa.
“It was difficult,” Jakhotia recalled. “At one gathering my wife and I spoke a different native language than the others. But we knew we had to depend on each other if we were going to keep our cultural identity alive. So we came together around our one commonality, our Hindu beliefs.”
By the early 1990s, the local Indian community was still small, but it had outgrown homes for religious services.
Pawan Rattan joined forces with spiritual leaders to turn an abandoned school building at 311 E. Palm Ave. into the Vishnu Mandir temple, which opened in 1992.
With its deities and altars, it was authentic spiritually; architecturally, it was not.
In India, a Hindu temple is supposed to be among the most grandiose structures in a community, not an old school building.
Four years later, in 1996, Tampa dedicated the grandiose structure — the Hindu Temple of Florida on Lynn Road. It boasts traditional Indian architecture, including a tower reaching seven stories high that is adorned with symbols of Hinduism: elephants, peacocks, lotus flowers.
Later, other temples were erected throughout the Tampa area.
“To have beautiful temples is a big deal,” said Dilip Kanji, a Tampa-based hotel developer who has long been a leader in the local Indian community. “Not only do they provide the Hindu community with a proper gathering place, but it provided the entire Indian community with a presence in Tampa. Those temples told everyone in Tampa that we were here.”
Still, some people in Tampa resisted the search for land to locate the temples.
In some neighborhoods, Hinduism — the third largest religion in the world — was branded as a cult. After the Hindu Temple of Florida was built on Lynn Road, vandals tagged it with hate speech and torched a pile of old underwear. After the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001, which was the work of al-Qaida terrorists, some locals grouped Indians in with them.
“Our law enforcement had to keep a special watch on any Indian-owned business after 9/11,” said Dick Greco, mayor of Tampa at the time. “It was a scary time.”
The Indian community fought back with education.
“Appreciating someone’s culture breaks down the communication barrier and provides both parties with much better rapport,” Kiran Patel said.
Patel and his wife, Pallavi, founded the India Fest in 1988, a one-day event celebrating everything Indian — food, dance, song, art, literature and more. The inaugural event drew 5,000 people from throughout the Bay area. Today, it attracts close to 15,000 people from across the country.
Later, a younger generation picked up the mantle.
They founded the India International Film Festival, an annual event that brings independent Indian cinema to Tampa, and curated Demystifying India, an exhibit on display at the Museum of Science & Industry, from 2006 to 2008 that documented 5,000 years of India’s contributions to the world.
The exhibit was a popular destination for class trips.
“These things brought great understanding of our culture,” said Kanji, the hotel developer. “Understanding brings friendship and community.”
Appreciation of the Indian culture in the Bay area helped influence the Indian film academy’s decision to bring the Bollywood Oscars here, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of the tourist development group Visit Tampa Bay.
“The IIFA was impressed that the Indian community was so supportive of cultural ventures,” Corrada said. “The purpose of this event is to elevate a city and its connection to India. It helped that we had already begun building that bridge.”
Besides cultural understanding, business relationships helped build the bridge.
Pawan Rattan, along with Kanji, Kiran Patel and a host of others, formed the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1999.
“Indian businessmen and women were accomplishing much on their own,” Rattan said. “And I knew we could do even more through partnerships with others.”
Kiran and Pallavi Patel, namesakes of the arts conservatory downtown and a building at the University of South Florida, made millions with a health-maintenance organization, but they account for just a portion of the estimated $3 billion a year the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the Indian community adds to the Tampa Bay economy.
Kanji works with a company that has developed nine hotels nationwide. Paresh Patel founded Homeowners Insurance and Northstar Bank. Santosh Govindaraju leads Convergent Capital Partners, which boasts a portfolio worth $385 million.
Their success is tied, in part, to the support of Tampa’s Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said chairman Paresh Patel.
“The most important milestone of this community is of the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” he said.
“The growth in the business community was immediately apparent,” added Kanji. “The success of any community is its ability to bring all of its different small communities together as one.”
Ram Jakhotia can barely contain his excitement when he speaks of the Bollywood Oscars. He looks forward to the fashion, the music, the film, the food and the art of India as Tampa’s focal point for a few days.
He sees three decades of steady progression in the celebration at hand.
“It started in our homes so many years ago,” Jakhotia said. “And now the Indian culture has spread to every corner of Tampa Bay. Simply amazing.”